Monthly Archives: March 2016

Why We Write

All right. I imagine everyone who does anything on the internet gets exposed to plenty of those motivational graphics that probably make up about 55% of traffic on the world wide web, right up there with cat pictures. Mostly I ignore them – I know that most are posted out of either apathy or good intentions – some of them make me grit my teeth a bit. Of late, I keep seeing one that argues that everything that happens in life will either make you better or make you bitter (barf) and that the difference is Up to You.

If you really believe that, I envy you the peaceful and problem-free life you have enjoyed to this point.

Moving on, rant narrowly averted.

Also of late, I have seen a particular writer-directed one that asks ‘If no-one knows your book exists, what was the point of writing it?’ The first time I saw it, it raised the ol’ hackles a little bit and I wasn’t entirely sure why.

I do understand the point the person who made the graphic was (probably) trying to make – that writing a book is, in a lot of ways, just the first step of making it a commercial success and that learning to advertise and promote it is an important skill set for writers in the Current Environment. It’s a skill set that I’m gradually learning, and I get the idea behind the advice.

Still bugs me.

It took a while, but I eventually figured out why. I don’t like the part where if the book isn’t a commercial success, there was no point in writing it. Obviously (I think) I would love it if everyone on the planet read my stories and it would be great if I was able to get a significant income from my writing. I imagine most writers feel the same.

On the other hand, that’s not why I write, and I suspect that’s true for many other writers as well. I write because I have stories I want to tell, and I have fun making them up, putting them together, and writing them down. I love inventing people who have never existed and seeing what they do. I really dig the challenge of having a scene in my imagination and trying to convey that experience to other people.

I love working with words. I like trying to find just the right way to put something or to find a new way to get an image or an idea across. Words have been my toys for about as long as I can remember, so writing time is time to play.

As I guess I’ve alluded to a few times on this blog, writing is also a form of self-care – it relaxes me and the process gives me pleasure. Taking a deep dive into my imagination is a great way to give myself a timeout from whatever Real World problems are plaguing me, and having banged together a few hundred words can provide a feeling of having Done A Thing, on top of it all.

So, yes – of course I would love it if my writing became a huge commercial success, both because that would mean lots of people had read it, but also because, yes, money is a nice thing to have. However, even if you told me that would never, ever happen, I would still keep writing. I do want people to read my writing, of course I do, but that isn’t the reason why I did it. The point of writing, for me, is to write, not to have x number of people read it. Readers are amazing, and I am grateful to everyone who has ever thought it was worth their time to read something I wrote. But, if you pump me full of truth serum (or, apparently, get me to write a blog) I write for me. Because I love it, and because on some level I kind of need to.

I promise I won’t write any motivational posters though.

I admit I sometimes post cat pictures.

They’re mostly my cats though.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

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Registration has opened for Can*Con 2016, the SFF convention here in Ottawa. This year it runs from Sept. 9th to the 11th, and although the programming is still being put together, what we already know is awesome: The Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, Sheila Williams, will be a Guest of Honour. There are other very cool plans in the works that I can’t wait to tell you about (but have to) although I guess I can say that I’ll be part of some of the panel discussions again, if hearing me yammer on is the sort of thing you think you might like to do.

You can get the full details and get registered here.

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The Monster

I follow a writer on Twitter who is usually hilarious and fun, but sometimes she talks about her Monster. This is a thing that sits on her shoulder and tells her that her work is no good and that she’s bound to fail, and I recognized this immediately. I’m not sure if this is something that artistic types are particularly prone to, or if it’s just another facet of the human condition, but I have a monster too. It was amazing (but not necessarily in a good way) to hear (well, read) another person put things in the same way I have imagined them.

Because I found that helpful, I thought I’d write a little about my monster today.

My monster doesn’t sit on my shoulder. It is coiled around my heart and soul. It is a shiny black with jagged scales and sometimes it squeezes. On those days when my monster feels like constricting (and I have never really understood why it does) it makes me feel that I can’t write, that I’m not a very good person, and that I really can’t do much of anything. I’m old. Slow. Stupid. Not worth being around. Sometimes it squeezes a little. Sometimes it really bears down.

On days like these, doing anything is difficult because everything hurts. I don’t always get as much done on those days as I would like, and I’m not always the easiest to be around I guess. If you’ve run into me on one of these days (which you probably haven’t, because I tend not to be out and about on them) then I apologize. It’s not an excuse, but I’m doing my best. I try to remember, when someone else doesn’t treat me real well, that they’re probably doing their best on a tough day, too.

It doesn’t bother me every day. A lot of times I don’t think of it at all, and there are times when it can’t get me. When I’m writing something and the ideas are flowing, it can’t touch me. The monster doesn’t like endorphins, so exercise can make it go away, for a while – although it tries to persuade me this is a bad idea that won’t work. I know it’s wrong. And then there are some days when, for reasons I don’t understand, it just doesn’t do much. I take them when I get them.

I know my monster pretty well, by this point in my life. I can (usually) recognize when it’s at work, which doesn’t necessarily make it less painful, but if I know what the situation is, I know how to cope a bit. Pet the cats. Listen to the blues. Give myself a break. I know these are things that help.

I also know the monster will not win. All it can do is squeeze, and as much as that hurts, some days to the point where it seems like all I can do is hang on and wait for it to end, I know that if I do hang on, it will end and I will still be here. Then I will run and write and enjoy time with people I love and walk in the woods again.

I also know that I’m not unique in feeling these things, which helps a little. Some of the most brilliant, beautiful people I have met turned out to have their own Monsters once I got to know them well enough. It isn’t just me. It isn’t just you, if you’re reading this, and happen to have one of your own.

I know that I am ultimately stronger than my monster.

You’re stronger than yours, whatever it looks like.

We’ll overcome them and do wonderful things.

I’ll, uh, try to have something a little lighter for you next week.

——

My publishers at Renaissance Press are running a Kickstarter for a game called Blush that teaches about sexual health.  It’s a cool project and I know they’d be grateful for your support.

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Conspiracy!

I said a few weeks ago that I had a bunch of thoughts about conspiracies in fiction. I’m finally getting around to typing them at you. Right now a lot of speculative fiction, and stories from other genres, includes the idea of a conspiracy as part of the plot line. Audiences seem to dig ’em, which of course incentivizes writers to keep creating them. (I don’t believe it’s entirely a coincidence that X-Files came back this season, nor is it solely attributable to the current trend of remaking/rebooting absolutely everything) Outside of fictional worlds, it also seems that the idea of plots and schemes to conceal various truths and serve myriad nefarious ends is widely popular.

As I think I’ve said before, the idea of shadowy conspiracies is certainly not new. People have been worried about secret networks running things from behind the scenes for a very long time – the Romans worried about Christians, medieval authorities were often concerned about networks of heretics, and by the 18th century (or so) there were those Freemasons to worry about. The idea of the government coverup or conspiracy in particular really seems to have taken off around the 1960s (in the West, at least), when there was real evidence that civil authorities might secretly be up to no good.

To some extent it’s probably a natural thought process to imagine what goes on behind closed doors, to wonder if the people running things are all they seem to be, and (one hopes) to question what we’re told. I think probably everyone has felt, at some point in their lives, that the deck is stacked against them and that, somehow, things are working against you. I think we also tend to be natural connectors of dots and seekers of patterns, patterns which may not always actually be there, or mean anything. All those things combine (I think) to make people somewhat inherently prone to imagine or search for plots and schemes in the world around us.

I think a good conspiracy theory works well in fiction partly because they are inherently dramatic (the gradual reveal of a previously-hidden enemy) and they’re great for making your protagonist look heroic, as they struggle against opponents with significant resources and numbers on their side. (As an aside, that’s part of why I like Mulder and Scully from X-Files.) I think there’s also an element of the puzzle at work here; readers often like to have riddles to solve and clues that they can either try to put together themselves to reveal something, or watch them gradually fall into place until the Truth Is Revealed. So, conspiracies make sense in fiction at least partly because they work really well in a few different ways, and if you look at stories through history you find lots of them.

It does seem, though, that we are especially ready to entertain the idea of conspiracies, in recent years. Just picking from a few recent stories in the news, two years on from the disappearance of MH 370, many people argue that the jet did not crash, but was diverted, its passengers concealed for no clearly expressed purpose that I have seen. Within days of the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, there were theories flying around that Scalia had been murdered, presumably to allow the outgoing President to stack the Supreme Court on his way out the door. What seems to have been a fairly typical military training exercise (Jade Helm) got turned into an attempt to impose martial law and (somehow) overthrow U.S. society.

The MH 370 stories are, no doubt, partly fuelled by the lack of a solid official explanation for what happened to the flight; all we have is a best guess based on scraps of evidence. However, it’s worth noting that even the recovery of pieces of debris from the plane doesn’t appear to have brought an end to the theories that the jet did not crash, but was hijacked or diverted; the pieces of metal are all part of the conspiracy.

This is deeply sad more than anything, when it comes from friends and family of the victims. I suppose anything might be better than accepting that a loved one is really gone. However, this is also really not unusual with conspiracy scenarios – any evidence to the contrary can always be accommodated as part of a disinformation scheme, as an attempt to hide the truth. In some ways, the more of this evidence that appears, the more clear it becomes that the theory must be true – look how hard ‘they’ are trying to hide it! A good conspiracy theory can be incredibly durable. There are, after all, people who still believe, apparently sincerely, that the Earth is flat, or that the globe is hollow, and everything to the contrary is a conspiracy.

I don’t pretend to have a complete explanation for why ideas like these seem to be more attractive than ever. I suspect that (like so many things) the internet and social media are part of the deal. You can get your pet theory out to an audience that is so much bigger than was imaginable a few years ago, for very close to no cost. It’s also, of course, far easier to find these ideas as well, and to get connected with fellow believers. In general, we get exposed to a great deal more information about everything than was true in previous years. Lots of it can be hard to understand, and in searching for an explanation for it all, sometimes we may reach for unconventional explanations. Just as the internet is a fertile ground for just about any kind of communication, it’s a fantastic growth medium for ideas like these.

For writers, this is both a good and bad thing. There are tons of ideas out there that can be harvested for story ideas and plot points. It can also make things a little tricky because coming up with a conspiracy that would surprise or amaze a reader is perhaps harder now than it has ever been before. Based on things we know happened (doctoring of WMD evidence prior to the invasion of Iraq) or think happened, it’s easy to have your fictional plot overshadowed by ‘reality’. It’s just a guess, but I feel like the writers for the new X-Files series felt they had to turn up the volume on this (mini) season’s plot for it to hit as hard as they wanted it to, perhaps especially coming back after such a long time.

I don’t really have a nice bow to tie up all these thoughts in – which is another thing conspiracy theories are great for. They can provide a neat, comprehensible explanation to what can seem baffling, frustrating and confusing. Sometimes it can be preferable to believe something alarming and scary than just not know what to think at all. So although I don’t have a great sweeping conclusion to end this week’s blog on, I do know that I’ll continue to be intrigued both by stories of plots and conspiracies, and by their continuing appeal to society at large.

Thanks for reading.

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FINISH IT

I try not to put too much on here that might be construed as Advice, primarily because I don’t really think I am in any away accomplished enough to be telling other artists how to do their thing. On the other hand, as you may have seen on Twitter, I recently finished writing Bonhomme Sept-Heures, the sequel to King in Darkness, and I thought I’d write a little about that process briefly today. I think it’s useful for me to get my thoughts about it down and perhaps someone will read them and find them useful.

As you may recall from previous entries, I got more than a little behind schedule writing this thing. Originally I had hoped to have a full draft by the end of November, and for a while it looked like that was going to happen. Then Life Intervened, and ‘hey, this is going to work’ turned into ‘there’s no way this is going to work’. That derailed me, or if I was already derailed, pushed the locomotive further into the mire. I knew I wasn’t going to hit my goal and that was demoralizing and demotivating.

I think setting goals and targets is a good idea. It gives you something tangible to push for and to work towards, and a way to measure your progress. Many people do well under pressure (and many more believe they do, but that’s a different conversation) and working under a little gentle pressure can sometimes be beneficial. I do it all the time and usually it works out ok.

There is a danger to it, though, because if you set a target you can’t hope to hit (as I did, in retrospect, thinking I could write Bonhomme in a month) then all you do is risk feeling like you’ve failed or let yourself down. As it happened, I probably did less writing on the book than I would have in late November and early December than I would have without the stupid goal making me feel like I’d messed up, when I really hadn’t – I’d done what was possible for me to do, and that should have been ok.

So setting targets can be a good thing, but I think they need to be realistic targets, and you have to realize what they’re for – good goals are there to motivate you and help your process; if what they’re doing instead is making you feel down on yourself and putting you under stress then they’re counterproductive, and you should feel fine about adjusting them or setting them aside.

Ok, so after that the Christmas holidays interrupted much more work getting done – which happens – and then we got to January, and I had a new problem. By now, I had formed the idea that the book was Not Going Well in my mind, and so I didn’t want to work on it (because it wasn’t going well) and sort of avoided thinking about it (because it wasn’t going well). There was other stuff going on too, but in general I had in my mind that the book was A Problem and the easy thing to do was to do something else.

I suspect I’m not the only person who does this; it’s very tempting to put difficult things and problems we don’t know how to solve aside and move on to things we feel more comfortable with. Sometimes those are even productive things (I did a lot of laundry, man) but it doesn’t get those problems solved. The book was not magically writing itself on the hard drive at night.

Finally I realized it was February, my publishers were doing acquisitions in March and so the book sort of Needed To Be Done (for reasons discussed last time). I made myself get back at it, and discovered (no surprise, in retrospect) that the book did not have as many problems as I thought, and got it done. It began with breaking “Finish It” into smaller tasks (fix the scene where <x happens>) and starting to check those off. I have often found that a useful approach. After I dragged myself through a couple of those, the momentum came back and the last parts of finishing the manuscript went quite quickly.

I think it’s natural to try to avoid things we know are going to be difficult and that we’re not entirely sure how to do, but I also know that when I do that I can start to generate those negative feelings again (haven’t written anything on the book today, have you? No you haven’t. Hack.) and so the best thing, really, is just to do something. Make a little progress, because then you’ve done at least that little bit, and for me anyway, most things tend to build momentum as I work on them.

So the book got written, although it (obviously) isn’t finished yet – I’m already getting comments back from the Eager Volunteers and doing some rewriting, although in general the feedback has been very kind – and I’m proud of that, and pleased with the story it tells, now that it has a beginning, middle and an end. Hopefully the people who read it will like it too.

Maybe some of this will be useful to people who read it; mostly I’m going to keep this around for when I start to have some difficulty with the next project, whichever one that turns out to be.

I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

—–

As you also may have seen on Twitter, I am very excited to be able to confirm that I will be attending the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston this summer! Limestone is a fairly young convention and although many of the writers they have lined up are SFF types, they celebrate all kinds of genre fiction so there will be lots for fans of mystery and romance books as well. Details about the panels and workshops are still firming up but the lineup of talent who will be there looks really cool and I’m very glad to be a part of it. Renaissance Press will be there all weekend and I’m already looking forward to meeting some new people and hanging around book lovers for a couple of days.

I’ll let you know more about it as the date approaches, along with other stuff that I’m also excited about in the months ahead.

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Promises, Promises

This is going to be a short one this week. There’s a good reason – I went and promised my publisher that I would have Bonhomme Sept-Heures done by the end of the week and I gotta maximize the time I can devote to it to be sure and make that deadline.

I suppose it probably doesn’t really matter – they would probably take it a few days late – but it does to me. Douglas Adams has that famous quote about loving the whooshing noise deadlines make when they go by, but I always wonder at what point in his career he wrote or said that. If you’re an established name whose product people actively want, then yeah, you can do things like that. I’m pretty far from that, and I know that if I don’t produce some new work, the publisher and the people who read King in Darkness will move on.

That’s not really my biggest concern, though. I’ve said several times on this blog (and elsewhere) that I don’t miss deadlines. I never missed an academic deadline, and I’ve never missed a professional one either. I consider hitting my deadlines part of being a professional, in whatever field, and showing that I’m taking things seriously. So it matters to me to make this one, too. I may never make a living from my fiction writing, but however big a part of my life it eventually becomes, I have decided that I want to be serious about it.

I also just don’t like going back on my word. I try not to make too many firm promises because things can always change around in ways you don’t expect and sometimes even what seems like the safest prediction in the world doesn’t work out the way you thought it would. You can all too easily end up not being able to follow through on something you figured would be super easy, and it might not really be your fault at all. But, if I give a solid promise, for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I absolutely hate to have to back up on that.

So, gotta hit this deadline. Longer blog entry next week.

For now, I’ll just tell you a little about the new book. It picks up after King in Darkness (which, of course, you’ve read. Right? RIGHT?!?) and returns to Adam Godwinson, faced by (of course, probably) another threat that he wouldn’t have expected. I think it takes things in a reasonably unexpected direction overall, and I hope people will like that. I’m also excited that this book is tied to specifically Canadian spookiness (the titular Bonhomme Sept-Heures), which I think is relatively unique and fun.

I think that if you liked King in Darkness you’ll like this new one as well, and I think it may stand on it’s own ok even if you haven’t read the first book. (But of course, you will read the first book, won’t you?) Now I need to go finish writing it so I can share it with you before too much longer. I’m very excited to do that.

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By way of briefly updating what I’ll be doing in the months to come, plans are still firming up, but not to the point where I can say anything for certain yet. It does look like there will be some really exciting events that I will be taking part in though, and if everything comes together I’ll be roaming out beyond the Ottawa area for the first time. I’m looking forward to meeting some new people and taking part in stuff I haven’t before. As I said a couple weeks back, getting to do some conventions and signings and things has been an unexpected joy and I’m really excited to do some more in the months ahead.

I’ll give you details as they solidify.

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